It started with a short sentence.
“Can I speak to Angelo, please.”
I rarely get calls on my mobile, mostly wrong numbers. “ No-one here of that name, sorry.” Was my simple reply and I may have caught an “Oh” as the line clicked off.
It was a pleasant voice, female, probably young; i.e. young enough to be a daughter, maybe even a granddaughter of mine. If I had any.
I returned to wire brushing the cracks in the block paving on the drive. A cross between a most thankless and satisfying task for a mildly OCD person. That’s me, I suppose. Not a hang-up, just an observation.
I was almost relieved to stop when the mobile rang again.
“Was this a wrong number or is it just that Angelo isn’t there?” The same female voice, this time a little less chirpy, anxious.
This is where another flaw emerged and I had to respond that “I didn’t know if it was a wrong number but I did know that Angelo wasn’t with me. Or had been. He certainly wasn’t helping me weed the block paving!”
“Oh.” This time the line didn’t go dead and I just stood there waiting, listening.
“They gave me this number.”
“My number or the wrong one?”
“Okay, maybe I asked the wrong question. Philip Marlowe I ain’t.” I shouldn’t have said that out loud!
“Who? No, it’s Angelo I wanted.” She sounded hesitant.
I should have killed the call but she would probably have rung back to ask why. I was also curious and felt like Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe in one of his smoke-filled bars or hotel rooms talking with a mystery caller. Well, I had just finished reading an old Chandler paperback and despite my age can still empathise like a good-un.
“Can I help?” Foolish, foolish! I thought, as I spoke.
“If he is not there, it might be too late when he gets back. Just tell him I rang and said I’m here.” Her voice choked, broken now.
Young or old, alarm bells still ring, maybe more so as time passes. I went for alarm!
“Too late? I can come over now, if it is important. Where are you? It’s never too late to talk. Just tell me where and I will drive straight to you.” By now my heart was bumping a bit and I had dropped the wire-brushy thing and started to go back indoors. And I never once considered that she could be literally anywhere in the world.
“I’m at the station.”
“Which station? Where?”
“Burnthorpe. Railway. There’s a train coming….” She was almost screaming at the noise.
“No! Wait!” I shouted into the phone. I heard the roar of the train as it sped through. I could imagine the blur and rush as the noise of the express shattered through the phone and the single tone followed disconnection. I can hear it now, it’s a sort of tinnitus, an electronic whistle embedded in my brain that creeps out as a reminder in the dark. I think I got myself into a panic.
And where was Burnthorpe? I hadn’t heard of it. It wasn’t local as far as I knew. And I stood there with that damned whistling in my ear even when I looked and saw the red blob with ‘call ended’ on it.
Search engines on phones do have their uses. My head cleared as I found Burnthorpe, a couple of hours drive away. Or I could just ring the station. And say what? What would I want to hear? Chances are they wouldn’t even talk to me, a strange man asking questions about a brief phone call, and that a wrong number and maybe a……? I could pretend to be a journalist, or just nosey.
Burnthorpe rang a tiny bell. All I knew about it was I had never been there, must have buried the name in some odd recess.
I live in a bit of a mess but sometimes I get that disconcerting enthusiasm to do something. Finish tidying the office. Write another chapter. Well, rarely these days. Finding something new to say about Enclosures means research, which I no longer have the patience for and ‘retired’ means I can’t cajole students into the subject. It’s prime-time social upheaval but the glamour seems to have moved back to the ‘Dark Ages’. Even that term is antiquated now!
But after that lost voice, those few seconds, I felt an almost alarming need to know. It was quite odd to get that feeling from so long ago. Maybe it was just the chance timing in the middle of a boring day for a bored old man. I can say that but not you. I say I am early-retired but truth be known I’m just a casualty of the cost-cutting, course cutting, redundancy-band of nearly sixty year-old university drones. I might have gone a few years earlier but survived. Having said that maybe I should have left five years earlier and got a big payout instead of a few quid extra on my pension.
Oddly, some of that actually drifted through my mind as I shoved the tablet and charger into my rucksack, checked wallet for cash and cards and headed for the door. Bag on shoulder, glasses on nose and keys in hand I stood for a peremptory glance round the hallway before turning and shutting the door behind me.
I was sitting in the car, engine running in quick-time. I sat there and realised I did know what I was doing and it was almost exhilarating. I was off on a goose-chase, I told myself, but the woman’s voice echoed through the background tinnitus. Maybe I was caught in my own web of fantasy, swapping village labourers for my other passions; pulp crime fiction, Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart and gritty films. Yes, I still have my childhood tucked away safely and it escaped. There I was, about to drive into the unknown, for no real reason. So I did.
What did we do before navigation-apps? Now I stick in the post-code and hope for the best. I followed the little blue arrow on my phone and the attentive instructions about roundabouts and exits for an hour or so. After that I was offered a route that was quicker round congested traffic and I entered a world of ‘lost’ single-track lanes that criss-crossed bigger roads for no apparent reason until I was instructed to turn left onto a busy dual carriageway. Within a hundred metres I was filtered off again and driving alongside a small Industrial park which switched to a smaller retail park and finally a railway station. Having ‘reached your destination’ I parked in an all too convenient parking space beside a police car.
Well, I had arrived. One option would be to drive home immediately. The police car seemed an ominous sign. I unhooked my phone and slipped it into the jacket’s inside pocket. Unclipped the seatbelt, opened the door and swivelled round. At least I could wander around, looking casual, I thought. Got out, straightened up, stiffly. Saw a coffee shop opposite and went in to order a cup and find a toilet. Why do you so rarely find a toilet in books? On Tele yes, quite important in some series. Relieved, coffee before me, I sat looking out at the police car.
“Do they just park there all day?” I spoke to the barista clearing the next table. He followed my gaze to the police car.
“Nah, must be somethin’ up. If they park there they come in for a coffee and a pee. Not today. Not yet, anyhow.” He finished stacking the tray, “Been there an hour. Another one came and went again. Another barista nipped out through the swing door and returned having collected from other tables.
I sat there, fingers clasping the huge mug of coffee. Luckily it was cooler by now. I hadn’t hurried to drink it. I was still in adventure mode but had no idea what to do so sat, a figure of indecision.
Oddly satisfying it was too. Two minutes later and a line of customers came in. They arrived as commuters and called in for assorted coffees and balms and sat at most of the tables around me.
Two policemen and a woman crossed over the road. I watched them approach. It was odd that I should recognise one of them. I thought. I shuffled down into my jacket even though it hid nothing more than my tie-less collar.
In uniform, the older man joined the queue. The others looked round the busy room and made a bee line for my table. I felt my face redden as they asked “can we sit?”
Sitting, they spoke casually about how long before shift ended and lack of plans for the evening. Mind you they finished at 10 p.m., so little time for much as far as I was concerned.
It was then I realised what the time was. And here I was, in a market town in the middle of nowhere, just about to be recognised by an old rival. Old friend. Once, briefly. And it was getting dark soon. Two hours from home via piddling little lanes that I really didn’t want to drive through again in the dark.
“Of all…”. He started as he reached the table. Carefully placed the tray of coffees and continued staring, interrogating my face.
“……the bars, in all the world…..” Bogarts voice crawled through my head.
“ …. people, I would never have thought to see you here.” He pulled his head back slightly as if getting a different perspective on the man who stole his girlfriend. “It is Harry, isn’t it?”
He leaned forward again and shot a hand out stopping a few inches away from my nose.
“Long time eh? Haven’t seen you for years. What twelve, fifteen? Not since you walked off with my girlfriend. Guys,” he moved his outstretched hand as introduction to his two companions.
“Meet Harry. This is d.c. Maitland, referring to the woman and sergeant Weatherly.” His hand veered back to my nose. I took it and we shook. He, firmly, and I surprisedly. He continued speaking, “ Harry. Harry Leem! Fancy.” He sat and I still couldn’t figure his mood with me. Time heals, I hoped. It looked like he had moved up if not on. It was sixteen years, actually, and she used me as an excuse to walk away from him, Walter, like she used Richard to leave me a couple of months after that.
He had just become a sergeant and was stationed in Sheffield where we met. He was on the course and I was the lecturer. I would socialise with students in those days, a legacy of the eighties partying and got to know him as part of the group.
So here we were, me a redundant lecturer, failed author, sitting opposite a very braided police officer from whom I had stolen a woman he no doubt loved very much. All because I worried about a phone call. I wondered if he still read Chandler or rather today’s crowding list of authors; knowing mine wouldn’t be one of them.
“Don’t mind them,” he said, “are you here for a while or waiting for a train to somewhere?”
“I’m in the car.” ‘Train to nowhere‘ zipped through my brain. As Walter seemed quite relaxed at seeing me I dived in, “Actually, I might be here on a whim or an odd coincidence. Listen.” It was like old times. Me, a lecturer with ideas, wishing I was different, talking to someone who was good at listening and maybe interested too. I told him my story. It was brief but as I began the other two listened in silence.
“Are you sure she said Angelo?” Walter spoke as seriously as he had listened.
“Yes” I couldn’t say more.
Can I have your phone, please?”
I automatically dug it out and passed it to him. He handed it to the policewoman.
“And can you confirm the time of the phone call?”
“About three this afternoon.” I hazarded.
“It will be on the log.” She said, “what’s the log-in?”
I told her. She checked it. “ 15.08 then 15.11. So the train you heard was the 15.11 express.”
“What happened?” They had said nothing so far, “Is she? Did she….? You know.”
The detective looked at the older policeman. He spoke, “ You are a potential witness. We will have to check your story, your alibi, if you like. But I can say nothing seems to have happened. Except she seems to have disappeared, maybe. Your story, the phone call, just happens to muddy the water. Strictly speaking we have no reason to be concerned as she is an adult. The problem is that her mobile is now disconnected and she was due to meet someone at this station. We know she arrived and waited and then was gone. The person she was to meet reported her missing.” He looked at the detective.
“We need you to remain in Burnthorpe so we can interview and take a statement.”
“Why not now, I should be going home. It’s late.”
“As it’s late it would be sensible to stay here in Burnthorpe. They’re bound to have a room at the hotel round the corner. The Lazydaze Hotel.”
Did they expect a challenge? It was too late to do otherwise. I had no change of clothes but could buy clean from the store on the opposite corner; said Walter. He ordered more coffees while I nipped to the store. The detective, Winnie, I was informed, would book me a room. The sargeant was posted back to the station and end of shift.
When I returned with my new boxers and shirt (forgot the socks!), Walter was alone at the table with his and my cold coffees. The police car had gone. Chief Inspector Walter Copper invited himself to my car and the hotel. Then booked and bought us an early meal where we picked our way through our last couple of meetings when he lost and I gained a girlfriend. I muttered about being sorry and that she left me too, very quickly. Once we found agreement that we had both lost and maybe he had made a better fist of life than me, we fell into a nostalgic conversation of catch-up of common interests. Until I cracked:
“Off the record,” I finally asked, “Is there a problem for this woman? Who is she?”
“It might be in the paper tomorrow anyway, so maybe I can let slip a little.”
I instinctively leaned forward and Walter mirrored the movement.
“We don’t know any more than you have just told us.” He leaned back, almost smiling, briefly. “We just came in for a coffee break and a two-minute briefing after I got off the Leeds train”
I just felt stupid. “But you came straight over to me.”
“Because I recognised you and you were looking at me.” He went serious again, “You might have been here about Ann. I know she works on your patch.”
I didn’t. I had just told him where I had driven up from but it sounded like he knew I hadn’t moved since those last meetings. “Is she still in the force?”
“Yes. Married, kids, divorced; the whole lot but still in Sheffield and a D.I.”
“The same. Married, kids, divorced and still living here. Burnthorpe has you by the throat, no escape. Your turn, Harry.”
“You recall I was divorced back then. Sorry about Ann, we should never have gone off like that.” I did feel he deserved an actual apology albeit years too late. I paused, maybe too long. “Still single, no kids, out of work. Well, redundant and early-retired but it doesn’t make it any better.” I stopped. I pulled us back to my reason for being in Burnthorpe.
“So why am I still here? Apart from trying not to talk about old times? You wouldn’t book me in here for no reason.” I looked round the sparse tables and furnishings, “Unless it’s revenge.”
“We need to check your phone; her call. If we find her mobile it might help. ‘Angelo’ is a new name. As I said, she just seems to have disappeared. On the platform as the train arrives, then gone. Maybe Angelo is a lead. Her friend got off the train and but no one to meet her.”
He hadn’t given me any names. It made it hard to imagine. “Do they have names, the women? It might help.” I started to think they were A and B but that old memory of Ann stepped in.
I continued; “The train. It was an express. On the phone it was obviously not stopping. Too fast and getting louder. That was when the signal just cut into a disconnected whistle.” I found myself thinking almost logically. The first time maybe for some months. “That’s why it got to me! I was worried it was a suicide. Maybe me and a wrong number, being casually rude was too much. “
Walter was listening without interrupting the pauses.
“Was there an express? Maybe she threw the phone onto the tracks. Or at the train? In front of it, whatever. Perhaps it was a stranger, a mugger. That would be why it disconnected. Is that the answer? But why vanish?”
Walter took his mobile out.. tapped numbers and spoke into it: “It wasn’t the 15.11 express, that stopped at the station. It was the one on the ‘through’ track. It was late and must have been just ahead of the stopper. Talk to the drivers of both trains. Get lights on the track and search for the mobile. Or bits of one.” He listened while it was repeated back. “And don’t forget to stop the bloody trains in both directions!”
“Thank you, Harry.” He pocketed his phone. “Timing, eh. Bloody timing.”
I was feeling bolder, “What about CCTV?”
“None available.” He shook his head pensively. “What was that course we met on? I just remember an arrogant bastard hitting on my girlfriend.”
“We were friends a few months before that. But the lecture was ‘Social Unrest in the 18th and 19th Centuries’. Which was me. And I sat in with you for the two on ‘Victorian Morality and the Police’ and ‘Forensic Evidence; collection and presentation.” I felt no pleasure in that particular feat of memory.
“That was when you got bored and wormed you way between me and Ann”
Not something I could deny. I was into the social side; forensics was much too niche for me, Ann was much more interesting.
“Should I apologise again?”
“No; Walter under the bridge!” He raised his whisky, drank and said he should go and that I should report to the station before ten next morning.
Was that a joke, I wondered as he walked out of the bar with a brief wave. No handshake but then we were still a little wary of each other.
It was a warm morning, the sun was up but looking soft at the edges, like it was hungover.
It was a fair distance walking to the police station from the Lazydaze Hotel and the freshness of my new clothes was worn off when I arrived that next morning and asked for Walter Copper.
“Chief Inspector.” I was advised and directed upstairs, “second passage on the left and check with his P.A.”
“P.A.?” I thought as I walked the lavender corridors.
It wasn’t so much a corridor that I turned into, more an alcove with a desk jutting out. The placement, and the man behind it, seemed purely to obstruct entrance to the office door at his back. I could read ‘C.I. W. Copper’; black on white in its frame on the wall.
“Harry Leem,” I began but stopped as the young man silently pointed fist and cocked thumb backwards over his shoulder towards the door.
“Go in, he’ll be with you in a minute.” He didn’t take his eyes off the small screen with its flashing colours under his other hand. “Yess!” He said under his breath.
I stepped sideways between desk and wall then opened the door and entered. More like a cupboard than an office. Or a cell. A high window, darker lavender walls, a small desk with an old p.c., plus notebook and pencils that filled the desk-top. There was a comfortable high-backed swivel chair with just enough room to swivel and a set of floor-to-eye shelves. Some books, some momentos of ‘whatevers’ and six cards displayed on its top shelf.
‘Congratulations on your retirement!’ Said one. Others were more in the current taste of stills from old films with new words. One caught my eye. It was Humphrey Bogart towing the ‘African Queen’, up to his knees in water, looking knackered and the card read: ‘I thought they said Cruise, not Crews.’ Philip Marlowe would have put it better.
The door opened. Walter peered in, jerked his head as he said, “Come on let’s get out of here.” I followed his sidling between wall and P.A. desk.
We walked briskly, he was used to striding, I had forgotten how and the memory didn’t want to return.
“We’ll go to the pub.” He announced.
The walk was threatening to send me to hospital but we arrived at some bulging windows of a cream painted building on a corner in the old part of town. An old wooden linteled door. The building fronted the main road and round the corner, sloping up the side-street. We ducked our way in, a shabby table-high shelf to our immediate left with a biggish black book sitting on it. Matt black and shabby to match the stained oak of the wall behind it. It was like the shortest hall-way ever. You expected a second door but it never existed. Two steps and we were in an old fashioned, stone slabbed bar with another bar to the side. Once there was a wall between but this was now a much more open view where the lath and plaster had been removed leaving the ‘renovated, polished’ beams in their original upright and angled positions.
‘Hi Walter!’ The woman called out as they entered, “Same as?”
“Just a coffee and…” I agreed to one too, “And another. Americano.”
She brought the coffees on a tray. I had to watch as she walked across the bar, I’m old enough to know much better. But then maybe not. Obviously mature but a lot younger than me, us. Casually curling golden hair, framing her round and flawless face with a smile and twinkling eyes to catch anyone’s breath. I noticed she was quite tall and her rounded hips balanced perfectly between length of leg and body. The gently tailored dress and half-scooped neckline suggested equal perfection underneath. Not a mood I catch myself in very often these days. Too many students acting like waifs or mannequins took the edge off. Plus a few brief couplings and goodbyes that weighed me down. And at the back of it was still Ann.
I watched as she walked to the coffee machine and back.
She returned with a cafetière and mug for herself and sat with us.
“This is Angel,” Walter introduced her. She held out her hand, I took it.
“And you are?” She asked, our hands still.
“Harry. Harry Leem.”
“Harry,” she said thoughtfully as if committing the name to memory. Her hand firmed with mine and she smiled right into me. Hands parted, I watched her carefully plunge the cafetière.
“Coincidentally,” Walter started the conversation, “Do you know anyone called Angelo? Or maybe talking about someone with that name?”
She stopped pouring into a half-filled mug and put the cafetiere down. Looked up.
“Who is missing? It was all the talk here last night. I gather it’s a woman. She must have a name, is she local?” It sounded false, more guarded than interested.
“This has to be off the record. Today is my last day, after tonight I am off the job. They tried to kick me off today, the D.C.I. In no uncertain terms.”
“Winnie put him straight?” she said it without a smile
“Partly.” He looked briefly at me then back to Angel. “Harry might be a witness so I’m on babysitting duty. We don’t know if there is a mystery yet. It might be that someone dropped their phone and stormed off.”
“Did you find the phone?” I had to ask him.
“Yes. You were right. It must have hit the first ‘through’ train and we found it, or the bigger bit at least. With the SIM card. They were testing it when we left. dropped or thrown, or by who, we don’t know.”
Thankfully I’m not a grammar-tart!
“Her name? And the friend meeting her, you said.” Angel encouraged an answer.
“The missing woman is Adriana. The friend on the train was a contact rather than a friend. She had come from Leeds to meet Adriana. They had never met and she had only spoken on the phone and no photograph. She knew her name, that she had long black hair, thirty years old and wanted to escape an abusive partner. To hide. A woman called Nira was to meet Adriana at the station. Nira may have had their tickets for the next train journey so no trace of where to would be found.”
“So Angelo is the man she is running from?” I assumed.
“Yes, it seems so.” Walter agreed, “But Nira seems to know nothing more. Harry’s accidental contact seems to firm-up the man’s name as Angelo but nothing else. Hopefully the sim will give more. Ideally the Contacts List will have full details of both.”
On hearing the name ‘Nira’ I noticed Angel’s eyes tighten a little and look away briefly.
She looked back at me, “And you drove here just on a wrong number?”
“The way it disconnected worried me. And her voice was odd. No accent but something seemed wrong.”
“Are you police too, ex police?”
“No,” I had to smile at that suggestion, “Ex rubbish lecturer in Social History mainly 18th and 19th Century”
“Oh,” she smiled quite sweetly but obviously no convert to the subject.
“Don’t put yourself down like that.” Walter stepped in, “you were good at stealing girl friends!”
“Ah.” I had no more response than that.
She leaned across and patted my knee. “It must have been years ago, though. He doesn’t hold grudges forever. Well not many.” This didn’t really help. I drank some coffee.
As I sipped at the hot drink I realised that his reaction was more like before the messy collapse of our friendship.
Back to Nira, Adriana and Angelo.
“Has Nira gone back to Leeds?” Angel asked.
“Could Adriana have been asking for Angel rather than Angelo?” I tossed a random thought.
“Why?” She spoke and looked at me a little too sharply.
“I have no idea, just a question. Did you know Nira even if you didn’t know Adriana? Is your mobile number similar to mine and or Angelo? Is there any connection between Burnthorpe and Leeds regarding safe houses? Which this seems to mean. Was Adriana really running from abuse or was it cartels or even the police? Did Nira actually hear Adriana naming this Angelo? Is it just assumption because she said his name to me?” I realised I was mouthing off a bit. Musing out loud more than I should. I hoped we would survive this interrogation when I had known her for a mere twenty minutes. Let alone mending a fractured friendship with a retiring police officer.
I stopped. We looked one to the other, conversation blunted. “Oh Hell!” I thought out loud again. “Probably her partners name. Maybe she is Italian, he could be too.” I tried to back-track.
I looked at the menu board propped on the wall waiting to be put outside.
The header was the pub’s name: ‘The Jolly Puritan’ We were anything but that. I wanted to go home.
“The old vicarage.” She spoke as if forced. We looked blankly, waiting for more. “Dad bought the old vicarage when they put the three churches into a pool. You know, a team approach going the rounds. They sold off our vicarage and spare land from the other two. Dad retired. Then he died.” She stopped and looked over to Walter. He nodded slightly in remembrance.
It meant nothing to me, I just waited.
“And?” The bar seemed surprisingly quiet as we sat there. Walter prised quietly.
“Nira didn’t have any tickets.” Pause. “It’s only up the road from here.” She stood and casually pressed down the creases from her waist. I sat, quietly numbed, waiting for a dramatic announcement.
“It’s a safe-house.” She started to place the mugs and cafetière on the tray and carried it to the back of the bar. “Any more coffee?” We both shook our heads.
“We can have three people max.. women, girls, and any children. More would fit in the house but people might notice too many. “ she spoke with her back to us. Turning, continued; “I don’t know about the mobile numbers, we should check. Or the name Adriana is running from. But yes; she would have been given my number as emergency contact. And the name.”
“It’s you. You would answer to Angelo. Near enough your real name.”
“But she wouldn’t know I was a woman.” She leaned on the bar. “A little bit of security, we thought. Three years and nothing has gone wrong. Meeting at the station, both by train then a taxi to the house. I ring Madelie and she collects them and back to the vicarage. Nira just keeps an eye on her. On the train to the station.
Walter spoke. “I am an old friend, you and I. For years, you know what I know.” He rubbed a smear of coffee on the table. “Why not even a hint? And I am police, for goodness sake!” He shook his head. “You said nothing yesterday!” his voice full of exasperation.
A deep sigh and, “Because you are Police!” She stood erect. “ You never said ‘Nira’. I didn’t know she, they, were coming. I just react to a phone call. Some of these women have nothing. Literally nothing, especially trust. Especially trust in men. Yes, especially!” Attack was the best form of defence, she seemed to have decided.
“You could have trusted me, even so.”
Angel switched her gaze from Walter to me. We briefly held eyes before I bowed away. At which she moved to the coffee machine, “I need another anyway.”
In the quiet Walter resumed his thinking out loud
“So, we can check your two numbers to see if they are close enough for a mis-dial. That would cover that point. It explains why she, Adriana, was at the station. Partly the phone but not her actual disappearance. Did she run from someone? Did he, or they, force her or was she willing? The upshot is, she is missing, she has to be found.” He was interrupted by an old cartoon ringtone. His phone.
“It’s loud so I hear it in all weathers,” he passed it off as an explanation then listened with infrequent “yup”. Finished, phone back in pocket.
“It’s her SIM, we opened it. Lucky for us she’d no idea of security.” He continued, “ It had a tracking app on it. She could have been followed. Contacts include her own, and yours, or Angelo; we can check the number with yours. And we seem to have a selfie or two.”
Angel brought her new coffee to the table. Walter’s phone bleeped cheerfully again and he retrieved it. Angel peered over to see its screen.
“That must be her. No wonder she is running scared.” he said.
I looked across at the picture on the screen to see a young woman with long black hair and a worryingly swollen eye with massive black bruising and a cheek that was just shining into deep purple with yellow outer edges.
Angel grabbed at my arm. “When was that? The date?”
“Three days ago.” He scrolled down to more text. “ He left her messages but they haven’t sent them on. His last one was 11. O5. Just before she phoned you, as Angelo. “
“Is his picture there?” I asked.
“No. We are getting his details off his mobile account and trying for his current location.”
“Can you find where he was on his 11.05 text?” Me again. Angel’s grip was beginning to hurt.
It suddenly felt incongruous. Me, sitting in a pub with an old ex-maybe-friend and a woman I should have felt so much less for after only half an hour; and talking pseudo forensics with the almost retired policeman about abused women and maybe abduction or worse. As they say, twenty four hours ago I was at home, bored. Now I just wanted to get out and find that woman. I had forgotten what adrenaline was like. But then I rarely knew anyway. Now I felt it, I wanted more.
Walter got his notebook out and wrote the number she had rung for Angelo. It was my number. No surprise in the end. We checked Angel’s number and the last six digits were the same as mine, as were the codes. No! Adriana had transposed numbers into my carrier’s when putting them into her contact list. A simple mistake but it might have been her last.
He was on his phone, “ Get that search organised. From the railway station outwards. Circulate her photo. Treat it as a suspicious action. We don’t know if it is abduction. Yet.” He looked towards me, “ I will drop you at the hotel. You can leave Burnthorpe if you like but I might need to call you back. We haven’t done that statement yet.” He stood. “Thanks Angel. I aim to forget about the Vicarage. You too.” He looked at me. I nodded. “I have to rush.”
“I can make my own way to the hotel,” I thought it would speed him along.
“I can take Harry in five minutes.” Angel said quickly
“Whichever, I must go.” He said and collected his hat, becoming the real policeman again. “I’m off. We’ll find her, Angel, we’ll find her.” He ducked through the low doorway and must have knocked the Bible off the shelf.
Saying nothing, Angel glided to retrieve and replace the Bible.
She went behind the bar and explained that someone was due to start a shift and she could slip away for half an hour. Plenty of time to drop me at the hotel.
I just shrugged and agreed to wait. It wasn’t long before a young lad came in. Following a brief conversation with Angel he settled both arms to rest on the bar, phone in hands and thumbs jabbing.
“Come on then,” to me as she whisked out via the gap behind the bar. I had to jump up and scramble through; following into and out of a kitchen, a final back-room and lastly a huge old door that opened onto a square yard and the brightest of sunlight.
“She handled the car like a pro; almost as good as I handle whisky”. I rehearsed the line a few times as Marlowe came to my rescue while we dodged round the traffic and corners. Had we been chased we would never had been caught. We slammed into a parking space and the jolt matched the squeal of tyres.
“You can relax now.” She smiled as she looked to me, and twisted to get out of the car.
She was half way up the steps to the hotel as I managed to uncurl from the low-seat and straighten up. I watched her moving up the steps and tried to choke Bogart’s voice before I heard him say through gritted teeth “There’s a chassis to sashe with!” Note to self: cut out reading Chandler.
Angel watched me approach the reception desk.
“If you’re staying in Burnthorpe your welcome to stay at mine until this is sorted.”
“At the pub?”
“The Vicarage.” She continued, “There’s a spare room, if you want it.” No signs, just a straight offer. It made it easier to agree.
“You wait here, I’ll pay the bill then get my bags.” I should have said rucksack, with its two unwashed items from yesterday but it’s only a habit. I had binned the carrier.
I went to the lift, she chose to wait in the bar.
It only took seconds to stuff shirt and boxers into the bag. An automatic check round the room proved I had nothing to leave there. The sun flicked through the windows and off the mirror, catching my eye. I am not one for bright sunlight so I turned my head a little. Bad move. I saw myself in the mirror.
Three days since I shaved. At least I had showered but the brown stubble I expected had patched into a thicker layer of grey bristles. Not enough to be trendy but plentiful if you need to look gaunt, old and weary. I must have lost weight as the creases down my jawbone sagged through the stubble. “No wonder she offered me a room, I look homeless and friendless.”
I stopped the cynical voice before it started. ‘And here I am with just an overused rucksack to my name’. Excluding the car in the car park it was pretty accurate, actually.
The sun flashed into my eyes again. Stopped, flashed and stopped. Annoying.
Marlowe muttered something about reflections and mirrors and cuties. I looked out the window. It was not a pretty sight. The railway lines ran a stones throw away. You couldn’t see the station despite it being as close as a hundred metres. Looking towards it I could see the signal lamps over each set of tracks fixed to the gantry above sets of points for switching lines.
I put a nose to the glass and looked out at the shabby building trackside. You don’t see many of them nowadays. An old signal box. I couldn’t see inside, it’s windows almost one floor lower than my view and mostly greyed with dirt and rain from years of neglect. I imagined it when it was a vital tool of the railways. It would have been pristine cream with unbroken ornate eaves. A balcony with paling fencing, entered onto via a multipaned door. That was my nostalgia kicking in. In reality it was a near black ruin with its doorway jammed shut by an old wheelbarrow. The sun seemed to reflect briefly off a corner pane. Bogart would not be amused by this, I turned to find an Angel; much more his style……
She was at the bar talking to the young man laying out beer mats. She thanked him when I arrived at her shoulder. She had been showing Adriana’s picture on her mobile.
“He’s not seen her. Not seen any particularly odd blokes either.”
“How do you recognise odd?”
“Don’t worry, he would. He pointed you out.”
“Guess I’ll go and search then. Coming?”
I followed her lead outside.
“How do you know Walter then? He just said it was from a long time ago.”
I was tempted to ask the same question of her. “He was on a course and I was a young lecturer. We got on well. That’s it. Typical lads. Went our own ways and now meet again, must be twenty years.” She got my short version. “You?”
“I was a kid and he sorted a boyfriend out for me. I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. If he was a bit younger….or I was a bit different.”
We were walking to the back of the hotel, nettles and weeds aplenty.
She spoke again,” He said you ‘snuck off’ with his girl.“ Angel smiled at the words.
In front of us was the chainlink fence running along the tracks.
“I reckon they will start at the station soon. We can start here and work towards the platform.”
Okay, this was where my affinity with Chandler thinned a bit. I didn’t fancy climbing the fencing when the police would get there eventually. She saw me looking at the barbed wire curled along the top in all directions. Moving closer to the fence she scuffed down the weeds near a concrete post. “Come on then!”
I approached and she somehow unhooked the fence and raised it like a curtain. I foolishly started forward to help, got stung by nettles and accidentally leaned into her. I felt myself blush as I regained my balance. Obviously I had been entirely deserted by any of the suave cops I used to read. Still, it is a memory I find quite easy to remember. I was unsure of the look she gave me. Our faces so close, briefly. I just remember her eyes as we pressed together.
No words as I crouched under the raised fencing then held it up for Angel.
“We can’t just walk along the track!”
She nudged me and suggested we walk beside the track, because of the trains! Towards the station. I could stay this side and she would run over the tracks to the other side. With that she was gone.
I didn’t think, I just followed her, jumping across those glistening tops of rails. Eight rails and I am not very elegant, or, rather, athletic. We must have both been mad. At least she had looked, I just ran. She shook her head at me as I arrived by her side. Saying nothing.
We had our backs to that old signal box. My mind slunk back to my eight-year-old self, “Let’s look at the signal box.” I would love to get inside and see if the levers were still there, maybe they still pulled! I wasn’t put off by another withering look.
Surprisingly, Angel followed me along the wall and round to the jammed door.
“Watch out for trains,” I was now aware how dangerous it was.
“Half an hour,” she said, “before the next one. “But it will be this track.”
We looked at the upturned wheelbarrow, rotted and stained but still solid enough to be jammed under the brass door handle. It could have been there for years, since it closed. I looked up to work out which hotel window I had looked out of, counting along. The sun was high over the hotel and hitting the box’s windows. I recalled the reflection into my room. What if? I looked at the barrow and it was firmly fixed at the top although on the ground there were long scraped strips of fresh soil at each handle.
“That looks quite recent.” I thought out loud. “Maybe it wasn’t reflection.”
It was all too easy. Move the wheelbarrow. Pull the door open. Angel was in the gap first and calling. Muted response but someone, female, scared.
We looked before we crossed the tracks this time although aware we should have plenty of time. Three of us scurried under the fence. Angel had an arm round the dishevelled woman, guiding her back to the hotel entrance and hurried her to the bar area and into an armchair.
“You phone Walter,” she said. I didn’t have his number so she handed me her phone.
She was talking to the woman, Adriana, while I spoke to Walter. He said he would come at once. I heard him shout to call off the search, then back to me to say, “I’m on my way.”
Walter arrived in short time, accompanied by d.s Winnie Maitland. She went to the woman’s side and Walter to mine.
“Winnie can do the interview and put a call out on the bloke.” …. Assuming he was involved etcetera.. “how come you found her?”
I explained that Angel insisted on looking over the lines and I headed for the signal box for no very good reason. Noticing the marks on the ground was key, I suppose. Myself, I liked to think Adriana had been signalling me. Somehow getting the reflection in my eyes. Quite a classy thing to do. A real storybook escape. Maybe as good as any 40’s film, even of ’39 Steps’, standard.
We sat around. Coffee appeared via Angel’s organisation. She stayed with Adriana who spoke with detective Maitland. Some time passed while I pumped yet another coffee from the urn they had brought out. then picked out a few biscuits and sat restlessly again. I am not good at waiting. More time.
Eventually Angel came over and said she could take Adriana to the Vicarage now but I would have to give them a couple of hours to settle.
“No problem”, was Walter’s quick response, “We can go to the station and take that statement.”
That was settled, then.
I had to tell my story to a different police woman. Walter claimed he was actually retired now the woman was found. The detective I spoke to was going to follow it up, if there was anything to follow, that is, or was! I think my tenses are somewhat confused now.
Anyway, it took a while. I just gave the salient details. Basically the original phone call, meeting people and then the lucky search with Angel over the railway line. I mentioned the possible signalling I saw from my window, just to add a little flavour to the story. Without that it all sounded rather mundane, no hint of the ‘film noir’ that was in my mind.
Eventually we all ran out of conversation at the police station. The few chairs that were filled had people staring at their computer screens and playing with keys or mice. I was shown the canteen and waited for Walter to re-appear.
He turned up two more coffees later.
“Well, at least we know most of the story.”
“Here it comes”, I thought, “the denouement.” I rested my chin on my hands and leaned forward across the table. The eco-lights above my head not quite the spotlit shaft off Maigret’s desk that would have been pointing directly into any visitors chair. Where was the smell and blue gasping haze of Gaulouse cigarettes? Or was it cigars? Pipe? Walter sat opposite. No pipe. Large fingers and knuckles clasped lightly on the table. He moved to stir his mug of tea; not a sign of nicotine or bruised knuckles. “Perhaps I really should stop living in crime novels,” I thought, yet again.
“Is it finished?” I said flatly. Fool that I am!
“No, but I am. I am now officially off the case. Any case, for that matter. I am now one hundred percent retired.” He picked up the mug and drank as though it was his favourite beer.
“Let me take you to Angel’s. The Old Vicarage. She will be waiting. You can decide if you are staying the night. Unless you want a night-drive” More rhetoric than actual question.
Whose car was I in? I had to re-run the day to realise it was mine. Walter directed me the short distance to the Vicarage. A large house set back off a dead-end road, not rambling but a bit mis-sharpen with age and a few angled beams visible on the upper storey. Deep eaves under a steep roof. I could just see the roof tiles were layered in a two-tone zig-zag of red and orange. Elizabethan or just mad builder? Lights on behind drawn curtains. Up the stepped path to the trellis presiding round the front door. It opened. Angel kissed Walter and let him in. Ditto me.
Shortly after we were all seated in a big room filled with one settee and assorted armchairs, some of which were covered with fleece blankets. Very much a room to relax and be comfortable in. You could understand how frightened women, and children, could begin to feel safe.
We sat, Walter, myself, Angel and the newly rescued Adriana, plus the finely sculpted Madelie who had been waiting in the house for some thirty six hours. Adriana looked more bruised than her selfie. Time and a shower had softened the bulge of her eye and socket but the bruising was much more and multi-coloured from almost black through purple to ochre to cream. Even a touch of green, it seemed to me. It must have been a savage attack by her partner……ex-partner. The settees were much more comfortable and companionable than the station canteen! And we each had a glass of something to hand.
At last! The full story got rounded out by each of us following the time-line, as it were, from when Adriana was first put into contact for the safe-house.
Most of it is scattered through these notes but those missing pieces of jigsaw were of the following:
The mobile going dead in the middle of the second call to me. Was she kidnapped? Adriana found trapped in the signal box, how did she get there? Who blocked her escape with the barrow? How did she signal me from inside?
So much for solving mysteries!
Well, for the first. It seems Adriana was very scared by that text he sent, saying she was being followed and then even more scared when she spoke to me, a wrong number, twice. At that moment she realised she had a tracking app. on her mobile. That was how he could follow her every move. In sheer frustration she had thrown her mobile, mid-call across the tracks, co-incidentally as the express approached. Her phone hit the train and, surprise surprise, it broke and killed the call.
Was she kidnapped? A text and the event made it a serious possibility. Nope! Scared anyway, she ran down the platform, off the slope at the end and trackside. We were all surprised she wasn’t seen and at least shouted at! Anyway she reached the old signal box, saw the door ajar and ran inside to hide.
Who rammed the wheelbarrow against the door to stop her leaving? No-one had any ideas. Obviously someone, probably a passing railman but no idea at that moment.
So she was stuck there. First of all hiding in fear then just unable to get out.
I had decided she had cleverly signalled to me and asked how she did it. She hadn’t! So us finding her was all down to Angel on a whim to search at the back of the hotel.
Where’s the clever solving of clues then?
And finally; it seemed she wasn’t being followed, chased, whatever. The threats on the texts were just that. All his texts were sent from the one place. He had been taunting, not following.
At the end of all that talking there was little sense of satisfaction but maybe relief that it might have been so much worse. So that was it, the evening broke up.
I was shown a room for the night, gratefully accepted.
Finally, as I switched off the bedside light, I wondered if this visit to Burnthorpe would be my last. “ Of all the places in all the world, how did I get here?”
from ‘It Happened in Burnthorpe’ copyright wordparc, J Johnson Smith